’s THE MOOR’S LAST SIGH By Jessica Hagedorn Essay, Research Paper
The Moor’s Last Sigh
I was on my way to Ponce, Puerto Rico to visit Luis, a friend who was dying from
AIDS-related cancer. Luis was so close to me I often referred to him as "little
brother." I didn’t think I could face seeing Luis in a state of suffering and
physical deterioration. He had been ill for some time, and I had watched him go from being
the epitome of luminous, spirited, youthful beauty to a frail, ashen old man in a matter
of eighteen months. One would think I would have been better prepared for the ordeal; in
the last ten years, so many friends, ex-lovers, and colleagues had died from AIDS, drugs,
and other diseases that I had often joked bitterly about feeling like a survivor in
wartime. But this experience with Luis felt different. I didn’t feel as hardened or tough.
It simply came down to one death too many.
What to do? The time to get on that plane and make the dreaded journey to his home town
and say goodbye had come. I felt the combination of weird elation (I had to face this dark
moment at all costs) and fear (what if I fell apart and failed him?). The day before I
left, I walked around my neighborhood in a strange, trance-like state and ended up in one
of my favorite bookstores. I knew having the right book along for company could mean
everything in the world, but I also knew I was probably asking for too much. I kept
picking up books and putting them down. Poetry, memoirs, even books dealing with death
left me cold. Either they were too light, too literal and obvious, or not close enough. I
needed a book that would help me transcend, transform, and accept a terrible loss, but it
had to be a book also far-enough removed from my situation. I also needed the armor, the
weight and heft of the book — any book? — as (perhaps) precious object or protective
talisman I could hold in my hand. Of course, it occurs to me even now that perhaps I give
too much power to words, and those writers who know how to use them.
The novel I chose was Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. Playful, epic in scope,
oozing black humor and extravagant puns, filled with eloquent meditations on art and
mortality — the byzantine world Rushdie created was perfect for my situation. His was an
ornate universe inhabited by unpredictable, unforgettable characters who fretted about
mortality. My situation exactly, yet not my situation. My friend was dying, a gaunt bag of
bones having difficulty breathing and speaking. I sat with him in his dark,
air-conditioned cell of a bedroom, massaging his arms and legs while the temperature
outside soared to the nineties. Sometimes while he slept, I opened my book. With only the
weak light of a small lamp to read by, I focused on Rushdie’s rococo language, and tried
not to think about my friend’s labored breathing.
The Moor’s Last Sigh provided intellectual escape, but also helped me confront the
arbitrariness of death. For that is what a great novel can do — take us to heaven; then,
when we least expect it, drop us right back down into hell. And when it works, it is all
sublime fun. Reading for me is a profound, selfish pleasure, in which I am transported to
dreamtime. Yet my dreams can be as harsh and violent as any so-called reality.
Were the grim urban beauty of Manhattan and the lush tropicalisme of Puerto Rico akin
to chaotic Bombay and the arid, majestic landscape of southern Spain? Yes, and no. Was my
friend Luis anything like the doomed Moor Zogoiby, and did I see myself as the Moor’s
fierce tigress of a mother, Aurora Zogoiby? Not at all and absolutely yes, of course.
I finished reading The Moor’s Last Sigh on the plane back to New York. Away from Luis,
who would die a few days later, it was difficult for me to concentrate on Rushdie’s book.
The novel became less important, somehow. The tears I refused to shed while I was by
Luis’s bedside finally flowed. Fortunately, the flight was half-empty so no one paid me
any attention. The air in the cabin suddenly seemed as stifling and hot as the tropical
islands I had left behind, glistening thousands of feet below. I’ve been taught well how
to weep in silence. I hid my face behind Rushdie’s book.